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Author Louise Kennedy's debut novel explores love and identity in Northern Ireland

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The new novel "Trespasses" unfolds in 1975 in and around Belfast, Northern Ireland. It's a love story starring a young woman in her 20s who falls in love with a man wrong for her in every way. He is much older, in his late 50s. He is married. He's the wrong religion - Protestant to her Catholic - in a deeply, violently sectarian society. And while she doesn't know it yet, his life has further complications. Louise Kennedy is the author. This is her debut novel. Welcome.

LOUISE KENNEDY: Hello, Mary Louise. Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: I want you to get us going by reading a bit of the moment where Cushla first lays eyes on Michael. And the backdrop is her family owns a pub. She's working behind the bar. He stopped in for a whiskey.

KENNEDY: OK. (Reading) She glanced in the mirror as she was pouring his drink. He was watching her. She was emboldened by having her back to him and didn't look away. She put the whiskey on the counter. Cushla, isn't it? I'm Michael, he says. Would you like one yourself? He closed his fingers around the tumbler. The room looked better with him in it. Behind him, the shabby lanterns that were fixed to the walls were casting circles of warm lights on the teak tables. And there was a squalid opulence about the jade green tweed that upholstered the banquettes and stools. I'm teaching in the morning. Thanks, but - she said. Where do you teach, he said. It was one of those questions that people asked when they wanted to know what foot you kicked with. What's your name? What's your surname? Where did you go to school? Where do you live?

KELLY: OK. So let me pause you on that. One of those questions people asked when they wanted to know what foot you kicked with - Louise Kennedy, explain.

KENNEDY: OK. I mean, I guess that's slang, Irish slang, really. So I think the idea is that Catholics kick with the left foot. You know, it's a kind of football euphemism. It's basically to identify what religion, you know, a person belongs to. And this is in a place where things were - I guess they weren't just divided along religious lines, this was - to an extent coincided with class lines as well. And - yeah.

KELLY: So we heard a little bit of their very beginning flirtation, where he's watching her in the mirror. As their relationship is starting to progress, he can't ask her out to dinner. He can't ask her to, you know, go to the movies. They would be seen. So the way in that he finds is he invites her to give Irish lessons to him...

KENNEDY: Yes.

KELLY: ...And to his friends. And as often happens, there are words for which there's no direct translation from Gaelic to English. Would you give me an example?

KENNEDY: Yeah. I mean, I think the most interesting example really is there is no word in Irish for no. There are different ways of expressing the sentiment no - you know, a refusal in Irish. But there is no actual word for no. And this is something that comes up. So I wanted to show Michael isn't a typical Protestant of his generation. He's been educated in Dublin. His wife is from Dublin. And he spent time in the south of Ireland. So he probably has a much broader way of looking at Ireland. And I suppose his interest in the Irish language, for me, is maybe a sign that he's embracing some aspects of Ireland in a more broad sense.

KELLY: Of Catholic Ireland, yeah.

KENNEDY: Yeah, exactly.

KELLY: The other relationship that really intrigued me is between Cushla and her mom, Gina.

KENNEDY: Yes.

KELLY: They love each other. They look out for each other. They also drive each other completely nuts.

KENNEDY: Bananas, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Yeah. You've got a great line where Gina is chatting with her daughter-in-law, who she cannot stand, but she's, quote, "willing to enter an alliance with her sworn enemy to humiliate her own daughter." I read that, and I laughed out loud. What is it you were trying to capture about moms and daughters?

KENNEDY: Well, I think that both Cushla and Gina are maybe quite unsure of their place in the world. You know, Gina, Cushla's mother, she has a place, I suppose, when her husband is there. But he has died. There is a family business, and it doesn't go to her. Her rather unpleasant son is actually running the bar instead. So she's at home. She's not a wife anymore. She isn't in charge of the family business. And she's at home with a daughter who is educated and who I suppose she desperately wants to keep with her but also realizes that she's probably on borrowed time with having, you know, that much control over Cushla. I actually really enjoyed writing Gina 'cause I think she's complicated. I think she's maybe not, like, a textbook great mom, but I think she does kind of in her own way come through, bearing in mind, you know, she's totally self-medicating with Gordon's gin.

KELLY: Yeah.

KENNEDY: But I think that, you know, she really tries to come through in the end.

KELLY: I also - I mean, I was struck that she drinks too much. Almost everyone in this book drinks too much.

KENNEDY: Oh, yeah.

KELLY: Was that your experience of Northern Ireland, growing up with alcohol just saturating life?

KENNEDY: Yeah. I don't know if it's just because we had a bar that I was in and out of the pub all the time, but I definitely felt that everybody around me was drinking all the time when I was a child. Interestingly, my parents didn't really drink when I was a child. But certainly, if we went to family parties and stuff, there was lots of drink. There just seemed to be a lot of boozing going on.

KELLY: Tell me more about your family pub, how it compares to the one that Cushla's family runs.

KENNEDY: It looks very like it. Looks very like it. I suppose the demographic, you know, the regulars who drink there all the time, those people are invented. But I was a chef for almost 30 years. I run bars and restaurants as well. And there is something about having that sort of bar that has regulars that, you know, even if you're the owner and you're paying all the bills, you walk in and it's almost like walking into someone else's living room because they've very strong opinions about whether the heating should be on or not and what to watch on television...

KELLY: (Laughter) Yeah.

KENNEDY: ...You know - yeah - and passing comments about whether you're getting a bit carried away with yourself by using, you know, table mats if you're serving food, all that kind of carry on. And then also things that I remember as a child - you know, there's a drink - I don't know if this is something that was ever available in the U.S. - called Babycham, which is like a sparkling perry, you know, a pear-based cider. And it was served in a coupe with a gold rim - I actually have some that people have given me - with a little foam. And I had been taken to see "Bambi," and I was probably 4 or 5. And this cardboard, you know, really - fawn with very long eyelashes appeared behind the bar. And I was deranged to get my hands on it because I thought it was - you know, it looked like some sort of Disney paraphernalia.

KELLY: Yeah.

KENNEDY: But actually it was advertising alcoholic drink. And I - every time I was brought in, I was asked if I'd like a drink. And I would say, Babycham, and they'd all fall around laughing because it had alcohol in it. So they used to placate me with lemonade in a Babycham glass.

KELLY: Right. Right, right, right.

KENNEDY: So that was as good as it got, yeah.

KELLY: With the gold rim and all, so you thought you were...

KENNEDY: ...The gold rim, yeah. exactly.

KELLY: So I'm so curious. You were a chef for almost 30 years, you said. You came to this whole writing fiction thing really late, like in your 40s and 50s.

KENNEDY: I did.

KELLY: You're in your 50s now.

KENNEDY: I mean, it was really late, I suppose. I mean, I think people have maybe started later, but, I mean, I was pretty much bundled into a car and brought to a writing group when I was 47. And it wasn't that I never wanted to write. I think when I was about 7 or 8 I thought that I'd like to write, but that just didn't happen. And I probably had got it into my head that it was something for, like, magical people - you know? - that you had to be, like, a really special person and that I wasn't like that. So, you know, why would I be writing?

So I think that when I did sit down to try and write, something - I really felt that something had adjusted in me. And it wasn't that I thought, oh, you know, it's going to be a new job or something or a career. I never thought anybody'd read it. I never thought anybody'd ever pay me to do it. But I just felt better somehow, which is kind of weird. I don't always feel better now, but certainly the first day I sat down, it was really, strangely liberating or something. I don't know.

KELLY: Like there was this story inside that needed to get out.

KENNEDY: Yeah, I think so. You know, maybe when I was younger, I was probably using my best lines in the pub or something - you know? - or on a night out. And now I don't do that. So I think maybe all the best lines go into the laptop.

KELLY: That is Louise Kennedy talking about her debut novel, "Trespasses." It's been a pleasure talking to you.

KENNEDY: Thank you very much. Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.